Simple parenting strategies can help kids avoid alcoholism and other addictions, Vermont author says
By April Barton
April 28, 2021
Jessica Lahey, a local author, is getting acclaim for her new book and its goal to help prevent kids from engaging in substance use.
“The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence” provides simple tenets parents can adopt to help their children avoid risky behavior.
A 20-year teaching career, her work in an addiction treatment center in Bradford and extensive research fueled her writing. But her inspiration was also deeply personal. Her struggles with alcoholism, and her sobriety in 2013, compelled her to find the best ways to protect her now 17- and 22-year-old sons from walking the same path.
“I’ve made most of the mistakes we talk about in the book,” Lahey said in an interview.
She said genetics predicts her sons have a 50-60% chance of struggling with substance abuse as well: “I have no choice but to talk to my kids about it.”
While a kid’s brain is still forming, they can be more susceptible to substances. Lahey said every year a kid doesn’t use substances significantly lowers the risk for substance use disorder in the future.
For instance, an eighth grader who begins to use substances has a 50% chance of developing an addiction, whereas a tenth grader who begins using has a 17% chance. Waiting until 18 puts a person at level risk with adults at 10%, according to Lahey’s research.
Parents can help their children develop self-efficacy, empowering them to protect themselves and have the ability to say no.
Design an exit strategy
Using refusal skills is key to getting out of risky situations. Lahey suggests coming up with excuses or an exit strategy beforehand. Lahey herself has a signal she can give her husband at events when she feels her resolve is waning.
For kids who want to save face and still say no, she offered a few options.
- Blame it on the parents: say, “My parents drug test.”
- “I have an allergy to alcohol.” Some people do have an allergy to the grains in alcohol.
In some cases the excuses could be white lies, but she said the alternative is worse. In time, the child could become more comfortable saying no outright rather than creating a white lie excuse.
She also suggested giving kids the facts and actual data. When they hear someone saying “everyone does it,” they’ll know that is not the case.
Help teens deal with anxiety without substances
Lahey said substances can be powerful short-term anxiety relief, but the long-term problems they create can be devastating.
She suggests surrounding adolescents with messages that they are good enough just as they are. They do not need to fulfill anyone else’s expectations of them.
Keep talking (and laughing)
Talking with teens on a regular basis is one of the best preventative measures. Having open, frequent communication, like at the dinner table, can make the harder conversations not as fraught when they occur.
Meeting kids where they are and even using humor can help.
In the Lahey household, they imitated the popular YouTube videos “Hot Ones with Sean Evans.” In the videos, Evans asks celebrities tough questions, and after each answer they eat hot wings with progressively spicy sauces. After prepping the food and sauces, Lahey and her husband asked ten probing questions of their kids. So while the subject matter was tough, the fun added levity.
Lahey was originally more permissive about alcohol with her older child, preferring to follow the European style of moderate alcohol use in the teenage years. But, after research showed moderation doesn’t work and Europe has even worse addiction rates, she changed her approach.
She said it’s important to model to kids that once you learn something, it’s OK to change gears and incorporate it.